BY DAMON HODGE | PHOTOGRAPHY JOHN CARRINGTON
Chef Joe Randall is like the culinary version of a brainy college professor, but with a pristine white chef’s coat and hat in place of bulky glasses and a rumpled sports jacket. A half- century spent learning from some of the nation’s best chefs, working in top restaurants and teaching scores of people how to make delicious Southern food has given the Harrisburg, Pa. native a near-encyclopedic recall of culinary facts and unique perspective on how Africans and Black Americans have shaped American and global cuisine.
“Blacks have a long, proud history of influencing food and culture,” says Randall,
who has worked for universities, community colleges and culinary schools and also as a catering professional during his 50 years in the food business.
Look closely, says Randall, and you can trace some of today’s culinary influences to the African Diaspora. During colonial times, slaves cooked with the fruits and vegetables they grew, the cattle they raised and the fish they caught. Leftovers were often repurposed into their own meals with slaves melding unfamiliar ingredients and techniques (corn and frying popular in American Indian cooking) with the ingredients and techniques of their African roots (watermelon and stewing).
As centuries passed, Randall says the African Diaspora’s culinary footprint grew, insinuating itself into the American palate via judicious spicing (pepper, cayenne), use of vinegar and buttermilk on chicken and the introduction of salt curing and other methods to preserve food. “There were no refrigerators or health departments in colonial times or in Third World countries, so Blacks developed methods to preserve food.”
In the decades after the Reconstruction period, cooking was one of the few industries that welcomed Blacks. They cooked on trains in the early 20th century and later manned the kitchens in hotels and restaurants, all the while learning techniques from all over the world and introducing their own unique twists to foreign dishes. “Blacks cooked in all types of restaurants and cooked every type of food,” shares Randall. They prepared German, French and Italian food. They made everything from jambalaya and croquettes to sushi and foie gras.
Largely due to the food revolution on television in the 1980s and 1990s, careers behind the stove grew in prestige. The South, long a hotbed of culinary innovation, also got its turn in the spotlight with Julia Child, James Beard and others descending on New Orleans in the mid-1980s in an attempt to define American Regional cuisine.
“More Americans wanted to be great cooks and chefs and certainly there were Blacks among those who were caught up in the food craze. Many people started going to culinary school. For years, black leaders didn’t respect working in food services. Culinary is about you doing something with your hands to please other people.
It’s about long hours and hard work. That hasn’t changed.” As for his work ethic, Randall came by his the old-fashioned way — summers as a teen learning from his uncle Richard Ross, a caterer in Pittsburgh. Skills learned under Ross helped him later on in Air Force flight line kitchens and in apprenticeships under chefs Robert W. Lee at the Harrisburger Hotel and Frank E. Castelli at the Penn Harris Hotel in Harrisburg, Pa. Executive posts in top- flight establishments such as Cloister Restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y. and Baltimore’s Fish Market in Maryland, among others, followed. The more Randall cooked, the more recognition he gained. Radio profiles, TV interviews and magazine and newspaper stories, including Ebony and the New York Times.
He has worked with some of the most notable chefs in the country, dear friends Leah Chase, Edna Lewis, Patrick Clark, Darryl Evans, Earlest Bell, Timothy Dean and Clifton Williams, in executing fundraising dinners around the country. Some of the recipes from the dinner menus were presented in his cookbook co-authored with Toni Tipton-Martin, “A Taste of Heritage: The New African-American Cuisine.” A rite of passage for any esteemed chef.
Further testament to his esteem, he has received a voluminous haul of awards including a 1995 Lifetime Leadership Award from the Culinary Institute of America’s Black Culinary Alumni and recognition in 2001 for his contributions to Southern culture from Georgia Southern University.
If anything, Randall says too little ink has been given to prominent black chefs in America. Few came of age during the food revolution in television, so they missed the early wave. By nature, black chefs spend the lion’s share of their time on their craft, not on promoting themselves, hosting events or hiring publicists — things that can turn cooks and chefs into household names. Randall also laments the dearth of black writers to tell the stories of talented black chefs. He recalls a story he read in 1984.
“It was about the new breed of American chefs and it featured 21 white chefs. I challenged the magazine on this. I sent a personal list of Clonazepam without a prescription. It didn’t help. I realized that many of these popular chefs simply promote their friends. The media had this thing where if you weren’t doing anything trendy or innovative, you weren’t worth covering. But many black chefs are creating some extraordinary food.”
A founding member of the Southern Food Alliance and an affiliate of the American Culinary Federation and the American Academy of Chefs, Randall is using his name, experience and expertise to change that. He’s on a mission to el evate the profile of Southern cuisine and is using his cooking school, opened 14 years ago in Savannah, Ga., as a conduit. Through it, he hopes to spread the gospel about the cuisine and culture.
In 2012, he also founded the Edna Lewis Foundation which is “dedicated to honoring, preserving and nurturing African Americans’ culinary heritage and culture and elevating the appreciation of our culinary excellence.” Future offerings from the foundation will include scholarships, educational initiatives, dinners and an awards program.
“Blacks [in America] have to be proud of their contributions to cuisine. We’ve played an integral role. We’ve always been in the kitchens in this country. We’ve been in the kitchen for more than 400 years. Food does not have to be complicated. Keep it simple. Make it taste good.”
For more about chef Joe Randall, calendar of classes and more recipes, visit his website at www.chefjoerandall.com. For information about the Edna Lewis Foundation, visit www.ednalewisfoundation.org. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.